“He was disappointed.”
The words blinked at me on the computer screen, and released a strong cocktail of emotions – a combination of irritation, irony and even apathy. My brother was relaying to me, via chat, my father’s reaction to me casually dating a White guy for a few months.
Disappointment. It’s never something any self-respecting South Asian 1st generation child deals with well, especially when it comes from their parental units. I was a bit miffed – of course, I both understood and disdained my parents’ preference for me to date the ever-so-coveted Gujarati Doctor, but putting my interracial relationship on par with a traffic ticket I received at 16, or when I got in trouble for talking too much in 3rd grade, seemed a bit extreme.
Interracial dating, while nothing new to most immigrant communities in America, is still something fresh for South Asians in their respective communities. Most South Asian parents wish or demand for their progeny to mate with the identical cultural background (sometimes down to native village). There is a sense of superiority seen in the South Asian American community – the thought that dating someone outside of our own racial construct is “settling” for something not as good.
This attitude is often escalated when it comes to unions between Black Men and South Asian Women. The irony is that Black culture is emulated by segments of South Asian youth. HipHop saturates the streets of suburbia; the youth adopt non-colloquial slang – Kevin Gnapoor from Mean Girls and Ajay Pandya, Kal Penn’s character, in American Desi are great, comical examples. The truth is, this shared lifestyle often ends at the family door. Two people who grow up in the same neighborhood, have similar values, and a common lifestyle are still often divided by ancestry. Though the groundbreaking movie, Mississippi Masala, was first released in 1991, twenty years later, South Asian American families are still struggling with interracial relationships.
Fatima lives in New York City and recently married her husband Ibrahim, an African American man.
“My parents are not the traditional South Asian parents – they are more activist types, this includes even my extended family, and they understood my struggle finding someone, and the fact that Ibrahim and I share a faith, which was a big deal for me, definitely helped. But I did have some of my male cousins make comments like ‘if you need money, let me know’, in a very concerned fashion.” Fatima says, “I mean everything was fine, but still, we had a small wedding, and I was very purposeful in not involving my community at the wedding – it would be an assumption that I was ‘downgrading’, ‘misbehaving in New York City’ or ‘retaliating’. I mean, there’s a reason Ibrahim and I chose to live in New York City, and not go back to the Midwest [where I’m from].”
Not to say everything in Fatima’s mind is ideal, and the only hindrance is the possible buzz of the Auntie gossip mill, “Of course there are things like, my Mangalsutra at my wedding, which in my family is given by the Mother-in-Law, was given by my Aunt, and some gaps in day-to-day cultural things. But to me, we are an example in our respective communities as two successful, young Muslim professionals. ”
Asians in general have a different socioeconomic status than other groups of people of color, and are the highest earning group over all racial groups, according to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics . Part of this privilege may be an underlying reason for these negative attitudes towards interracial dating with other people of color. “Most South Asians came here on their own volition, whereas for African Americans, most of them were forced here in the time of slavery. It makes for a different American experience, and different access to opportunities completely.” Fatima explained.
And social and class differences aside – there’s a fear and a reality of exoticism, which is perpetuated through media of all types. A quick Google search about Indian Women and Black Men led me to a South Asian website with heated discussion which included attempts at an honest conversation and horrible stereotyping and exotifying on both ends. Under the shield of anonymity, forum members reinforced the gross stereotype that Black men marry “the fattest, ugliest women if that woman can support him.” Clearly, there are enough examples to prove that race does not dictate what type of woman you marry.
In Bollywood, the racism is a bit more subtle. In the movie Fashion, Priyanka Chopra’s character is a high fashion model who is spiraling out of control. The climax of her drug induced,wild behavior is sleeping with an African man. The next scene was her waking up to quickly realize she needed help. To further highlight how shocking it was that Priyanka would hook up with “a negro”, a viewer clipped it to be viewable online.
Another example, this time in more mainstream media, was the relationship between Parminder Nagra and Mekhi Phifer on ER a few years ago. When it came down to making their relationship move forward, Nagra quit her job in a rebellious act against her family (and even worked as a convenience store clerk).
All people of color – Asians, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and everyone in between and hybrid – in order to examine our place in America, must examine our attitudes toward one another. Our respective communities grapple with many of the same problems. Our generation of South Asian Americans has the chance to start this change – and after meeting Fatima, you know that it has already begun. In order for a more perfect union, we need to begin to respect the personal unions in our community. — S. P.